To fight aloud, is very brave —
What does it mean to be brave? Emily Dickinson gets right to the heart of things by showing me a different picture of bravery. One with which I can relate, if I’m willing to re-imagine my life. My comments follow her moving poem.
To fight aloud, is very brave –
But gallanter, I know
Who charge within the bosom
The Cavalry of Woe –
Who win, and nations do not see –
Who fall – and none observe –
Whose dying eyes, no Country
Regards with patriot love –
We trust, in plumed procession
For such, the Angels go –
Rank after Rank, with even feet –
And Uniforms of Snow.
Emily Dickinson Poems, Edited by Brenda Hillman
Shambhala Pocket Classics, Shambhala 1995
I live in a country besotted with romantic notions of Bravery. We’re captivated by monuments to those who fell to ‘ensure our freedom.’ Memorials to men and women who displayed Bravery in the face of overwhelming odds.
We pause to honor those who stood or fell on our behalf. As well we should. And yet….Who are the true heroes among us?
Emily’s poem reads like a slow, pensive hymn of remembrance for individuals who fought and fight battles, unseen and unacknowledged. Women and men, girls and boys more gallant than national heroes. Within their hearts they charge daily against The Cavalry of Woe that would take them down in misery, sorrow, despair, pain, agony and defeat.
The poem, written in about 1859, brought to mind Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade,” along with paintings that memorialize a tragic piece of history. Did she have his poem in mind? I don’t know, yet I can’t help wondering.
Her own poem could also be a eulogy for uncounted heroes and heroines who bravely fought their internal enemies. Few, if any, know their names or the stories of their gallant deeds. No public honors, no memorials. Unseen and unsung, they remain anonymous bits of unexplored or never remembered history.
Does anyone notice or care? Emily does, at least in part. She herself is one of these more gallant souls. Her poems remind us of her internal battles, even though we don’t know what all of them were about.
In this poem, Emily’s final stanza lifts up all such bravery for our respect, perhaps also for her personal comfort. She sees not simply one Angel per warrior, but uncounted ranks of Angels processing reverently in soft, snow-white plumes. Their uniforms drop blankets of snow around and over uncounted heroes and heroines. Snow-white flags of honor for every unsung warrior. Those who charged bravely ahead against all odds.
This doesn’t mean the Angels don’t also recognize the bravery of our patriotic heroes. They do. Yet it isn’t because of their visible service to country. Rather, it’s because no one gets a pass when it comes to dealing with the Cavalry of Woe that threatens to undo each of us.
My heart has been an unacknowledged battlefield most of my life. It’s littered with spoils of war—war I’ve waged against my internal Cavalry of Woe. I fought much of it silently, assuming I was a loser. The woes weren’t strange or unusual, but common and everyday. Things like Fear of Harsh Punishment, Getting through Harsh Punishment, Perfectionism, Depression, Self-loathing, Self-doubt, Fear of Abandonment, Fear of Speaking in My Own Voice.
Whether we believe we’re gallant or not, Emily invites us to trust in that cloud of Angel witnesses passing by, clothed in snow-white plumes. Reverently and respectfully they accompany each of us in life and in death. Honoring us as patriots who fought and still fight gallantly on behalf of our true selves.
© Elouise Renich Fraser, 28 September 2016
Painting by Richard Caton Woodville, Jr.,
found at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charge_of_the_Light_Brigade